Tottenham’s 2016/17 Champions League campaign was deeply underwhelming. By the end of that season, AS Monaco had been unmasked as one of the continent’s elite sides and there was, on reflection, no disgrace in losing twice to such a gifted group of players, but the tone of Spurs’ involvement was dull from the beginning.
Rotated squads, poor performances, and a meagre seven points; given the rich experience six years earlier, it was a vast anticlimax.
This time around, attitudes are different and anticipation has been scaled back. Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are among the favourites to win the competition and Spurs are expected to have parachuted into the Europa League by Christmas.
That’s probably realistic, but it doesn’t have to be such a negative. Of course, Mauricio Pochettino would dearly love to upend Peter Bosz or Zinedine Zidane and, injuries and suspensions permitting, perhaps even has the players to do it, but it feels as if this campaign, with its daunting odds, has a value which transcends qualification for the knockout stages.
In spite of the way he carries himself and the aura he exudes, Pochettino remains a young, developing coach. Prior to last season he had never competed in the Champions League at all and 2016’s lows were as much to do with that inexperience as they were his players’ individual performances. He was too aggressive at times, paying his opponents too little respect on not attaching enough importance to either the value of basic position or the importance of defensive continuity.
It was a lesson for him. Maybe a good one, though, because Pochettino seems to be highly instructed by failure – probably more so than many of his contemporaries. Unlike more celebrated figures in England, typically those who have been around for longer and have amassed a greater medal collection, he appears to still be in the formative stages of his career. He’s learning. Charting the progress of his Tottenham team, for instance, shows a side who typically react constructively to underperformance. When something has been shown not to work – be it a tactic, a selection, or even a particular emphasis – Pochettino rarely affords it a second chance to fail.
That isn’t to say that he’s is superior – to Klopp, to Mourinho or to Guardiola – merely that he feels a greater need for evolution. Rightly so, given that he is an outlier within a group who have all been to or won a Champions League final. The consequence is a fascinating self-pliability which was at the root of last season’s growth. One thinks back, for instance, to the switch to a three centre-back system for the trip to the Emirates last November, the way Victor Wanyama’s defensive/attacking ratios were shifted as the year unfolded and how, after the previous season’s galling collapse, a mentally re-tuned Tottenham bludgeoned opponents in the final week of May, in spite of having little left to play for.
On a micro scale, his tendency to react to the themes within games greatly accelerated. It was not unusual, for instance, to see his players contort themselves into three or four different shapes within the same ninety minutes, particularly from January onwards. At times, he flirted with change for change’s sake and paid for it in momentum, but it was still a symptom of his curiosity – of what he notices, of what works, and – more often – of what doesn’t.
It’s likely not a coincidence that some of his worst losses over the past 24 months have immediately preceded his longest winning runs: the awful home lose to Leicester City in January 2016 was responded to with six wins in succession and last season’s harrowing 2-0 defeat at Anfield led to nine Premier League victories in a row. Pochettino isn’t damaged by defeat, neither are his players. In fact, those periodic losses seem to be part of their refinement, melting away imperfections and exposing flawed thinking.
Through that lens, this Champions League group appears highly useful. Of course, Tottenham could feasibly be humbled in both the Santiago Bernabeu and the Westfalenstadion, lose both reverse fixtures and also get suckered by APOEL out in Cyprus. In that case, there would be no spin to apply. It’s more likely though, that Spurs will fall gallantly. They probably lack the talent to really hurt Madrid in either game and are certainly outmatched by Dortmund’s experience and savvy, but there’s no reason why a respectable third place can’t come replete with a few marginal gains.
On a superficial level, the experience of these fixtures will be of great benefit to certain players. Allowing Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and (the initially suspended) Dele Alli the opportunity to play against opponents who regularly trouble the Ballon d’Or shortlist will, without question, be to their advantage. Kane will face Sergio Ramos, Eriksen and Alli will tussle with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Spurs are a talented team, but they’re also a smart one. They’re comprised of intelligent, hard-working players motivated towards self-improvement. Group H might well be a trial by fire, but these are professionals who respond to getting burnt.
But for Pochettino the opportunity is even greater. As the summer has shown, his team’s continuing progress is more reliant on his ability to reimagine it than it ever can be on his employer’s chequebook. If trips to Germany and Spain equip him with a better understanding for how to use his resources to limit a superior side’s strengths in certain areas – Real’s central-midfield from Heaven, or Dortmund’s blitzkrieg forward line – that is something which can be applied back in the Premier League.
When the Champions League draw was made a year ago, it provoked pockets of disappointment among the Spurs fanbase. Their team has only been an occasional participant and, having conceded that ultimate victory was out of the question, they would have preferred to see the lights then stumble around the backstreets. Better to go out swinging to a ten-time winner close to the Equator than after a dull tactical battle in a freezing German industrial town.
But that ambition was also led by curiosity and an extension of their own private ambition: how would this team acquit itself in such rare air and what might they learn once they’re up at that height?
The latter, again, is the pertinent, deep question. Like a bright child, Tottenham and Pochettino will only develop if they are challenged. Facing Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs provides a certain test and opportunity to improve, but their continental excursions this season will expose them to an entirely different category of side and place them forehead-to-forehead with genuine excellence.
It may be rough, it might even get ugly and dispiriting for the supporters, but it should prove extremely useful over the months and years ahead.